Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary: A Wilder Side Adventure

From the Wilder Side of Oakland County on the Oakland County Blog

By Jonathan Schechter – he is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

If you are looking for place to deepen your awareness of nature and embrace her presence, the Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary in the wilds of Springfield Township might just be the place.

The sun had been up for a few hours, but still struggling to break through the overcast sky, when we arrived. A gentle rain, devoid of the drama and power of a sudden spring thunderstorm, was fading. The first few hundred feet of primitive trail was mostly a squishy carpet of moss, and then the rich muck that clung to our boots marked our passage on a narrow creaky boardwalk that nature struggled to reclaim. An ethereal stillness hung over the swamp, interrupted only by the drumming of Pileated Woodpecker, and then the melodious melody of a pair of Barred Owls. I felt a bit like an explorer stumbling into a hidden habitat that was mysteriously wild, where humans are just passing intruders. We were.

The Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary is the largest sanctuary in southeast Michigan managed by the Michigan Nature Association. According to their website, “This 245-acre area has remained largely undisturbed since the surrounding land was farmed in the early 19th century. From the mid-1800s until the MNA’s acquisition, the swamp provided timber for local settlers and farmers, with former logging trails still evident into the early 1900s. The sanctuary is adjacent to Indian Springs Metropark, and together they protect more than 2,000 acres of sensitive habitat and green space.”

Two choices awaited our mid-April rainy day exploration. Both would have been perfect. One would have been to just sit and lean against a tree and absorb the serenity of the swamp. The other choice was to follow the words of William Wordsworth, “Come forth into the light of things. Let Nature be your teacher.” We did both. We wandered the trails slowly, while consciously seeking out nature’s secrets – and stopping at trees to sit, lean and listen. We were well rewarded.

Oakland County is blessed with a diverse array of forest habitats, and some of those habitats are hardwood swamps. The Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary has fascinating forest forensic stories to share. Some forest stories are difficult to interpret, while others are open books of natural history for those that take the time to explore. To understand and appreciate the habitat of Timberland one must take note of the thousands of fallen trees. They fell for different reasons. Knowing the reasons will enrich your trek along the three miles of the narrow meandering trail, a habitat that includes log-crawling slugs, hidden salamanders, numerous species of birds, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, mink, deer, fox, coyotes, ferns and an impressive array of wet woodland wildflowers.

Blowdowns are downed trees that were uprooted by winds strong enough to topple a living tree. When the cataclysmic fall occurs, a gaping hole is left where their root mat was ripped from the earth. Deadfalls were already dead trees that fell in a wind. Many of the deadfalls in this swamp are ash trees, killed by emerald ash borers. How does one tell the difference between a blowdown and a deadfall? It’s fairly easy. A fresh blowdown usually has bark remaining all around the trunk and a large hole in the ground is present where the base of the tree was located. Deadfalls have little bark left, and a close observer of nature notices another clue, the position of fungi. The fungi on the tree bark of a fresh deadfall is at a 90 degree angle to the ground, while blowdowns grow fungi that are level with the plane of the ground.

The habitat of Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary is nearly flat and encompass small streams, vernal pools, wooded wetlands and of course “swampy” lands. In some locations there is not a clear defining line between what is land and what is water. The wetter parts of the terrain have red maple, silver maple, white ash, black ash, basswood and yellow birch trees. A few feet of elevation led to beech-maple woods, with black cherry, shagbark hickory and mature red oaks mixed in. A small meadow clearing in the woods brought a surprise encounter; a Sandhill Crane that cautiously stalked away from us. Wildflowers were just beginning to bloom during our trek, with delicate spring beauties edging much of the trail, and marsh marigolds adding brilliant splashes of yellow amidst the  thick carpets of skunk cabbage. Trillium bloom is just around the corner, and May Apples will flower shortly. May Apples have an umbrella-like shape as they emerge from the soil and on our magical moist morning hike one could almost image elves hiding underneath the leaves to stay dry.

Three hours was not nearly enough time to explore the trailside wonders of this amazing swamp on the Wilder Side of Oakland County, but four encounters deserve more mention.

May Apples

I consulted my friend Sakoieta Widrick, a Mohawk elder from the Wolf Clan and Instructor of Iroquoian Culture and a Mohawk Language Specialist for his take on the May Apple. Here’s what he shared. “May Apple, also known as a Ground Lemon or Wild Mandrake, was used by the Mohawks and other Iroquois Nations as a medicine to help deal with illnesses and keep the body functioning on a healthy level. It was used for treating infections in animals, used as a laxative, as a medicine for boils, and also as a corn medicine. In its usage with corn, the corn seeds were soaked in the roots of the May Apple to protect the sprouting corn from birds and worms. Then when finished the plant parts were returned to the woods again and thanks was given for the plant helping us as was instructed by the Creator for it to do so.”

Wood Ducks

The Wood Duck is a stunningly beautiful bird. The males are iridescent chestnut and green while the more subdued, yet elegant females, have a distinctive profile and delicate white pattern around the eye. They nest inside tree cavities making wooded swamps, such as Timberland, a five-star habitat. They also have strong claws on the edge of their webbed feet enabling them to cling to tree branches. Ten minutes of patience during our trek enabled us to capture an image of a female wood duck outside of her nesting cavity.

Red-Backed Salamander

The Eastern Red-Backed Salamander is one of the most active, and without doubt, smallest predator of the preserve. Their presence indicated a healthy ecosystem. These tiny creatures thrive in damp habitat under decaying logs and leaves and hunt invertebrates of all sorts, including snails, slugs, and spiders. They are the only lungless Michigan salamander and absorb oxygen through their skin and then directly into the bloodstream. Their skin must be moist at all times. Timberland insures that critical need.

Blowdown Microhabitats

Many of the water-filled holes created by roots ripped out by blowdown treefalls provide habitat for small species, including amphibians. One of those trailside microhabitats had a frog almost hidden under a floating leaf, perhaps waiting for a mate, or a bug to land. A return trip to these blowdown habitat holes tempts, perhaps for the frog, certainly for me.

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Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary: A Sacred Place of Cedars

From the Wilder Side of Oakland County on the Oakland County Blog

By Jonathan Schechter – he is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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“I enter the swamp as a sacred place”— Henry David Thoreau.

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Cedar swamp habitat takes on a special beauty that is mysterious, captivating and full of wonder in winter. It’s also a vital place of survival for rare species of flora and fauna, functions as a water storage location, and often as an aquifer recharging site. The Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary, managed by the Michigan Nature Association, is one the highest quality wetland complexes found on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. One week has passed since I trekked into that swamp under a light drizzle laced with wet snow flakes. I emerged with mud caking my boots, ankles, knees and backside. I was a bit bruised and slightly scratched, rather wet and tired, yet exceedingly happy and eager to return on a day when the sun shines.

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A northern white cedar swamp is a nature-lover’s dream, no matter the season. The scent of cedar on a moist wintery day is exquisite. However if you want to hike on a well-marked paved trail, or if you worry about hiking over extremely slippery planks and boardwalks, this swamp trail is not the place for you. Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary is also an excellent eastern massasauga rattlesnake habitat, but a few more months will slip by before these reclusive reptiles, our only venomous snake, will emerge from the moist crayfish burrows where they now hibernate. Poison sumac is present and remains volatile in winter.

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The trail is a narrow and primitive twisting footpath. Colorful and slippery exposed roots of cedar and birch trees grow across the trail – seemingly waiting to trip the unwary. Small diamond-shaped trail markers can be found along the route, but it’s easy to make a wrong turn. I did, but another hiker, the only other hiker I encountered, quickly ‘turned me around’ and my exploration continued. Off-trail hiking at this sanctuary is difficult to say the least, especially when entering thickets of white cedar, some standing, some bent low from storms, and others in their final resting places after succumbing to storms. Stepping around the blowdowns brings another challenge, mucky soil that struggles to suck hiking boots off feet. It also brings discoveries.

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I hiked slowly, stopping often to look and listen. The rewards were endless. Turkey tail fungus edged many of the fallen trees. Lichens clung to the trunks of standing trees along the banks of a tributary of Stony Creek. Owl pellets, most likely from the swamp loving barred owl, were under one tree, and another tree was the obvious roost for wild turkeys. How do I know that? A mat of turkey poo covered decaying leaves confirmed their night roost. Soft, green, moisture-holding sphagnum moss grew on sedge hummocks, and I suspect wood frogs and salamanders hibernated underneath the adjacent decaying trees.

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Exposed tree roots were a special attraction. The presence of the sphagnum moss facilities, the formation of adventitious roots and “branch layering.” When a cedar tree falls, the lateral branches often take over and grow upright as new trees. The result gives the impression of cedar trees locked in romantic trailside embraces, sometimes being joined by nearby yellow birch trees.

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It’s a site worthy of being protected, and it is. The Michigan Nature Association, established in 1952, is a nonprofit conservation organization working to protect Michigan’s rare, threatened and endangered species by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. The Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary is one of their sanctuaries, and is located on Rochester Road just south of Lakeville Road in Addison Township. The pamphlet at the small kiosk at the Rochester Road trailhead states, “MNA’s members, donors, and volunteers have built a remarkable network of more than 170 nature sanctuaries across the state – the largest network of natural areas established and maintained by a nonprofit conservation organization in Michigan.”

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The section I explored is on the west side of Rochester Road, and has a very small roadside parking area. A flatter, more open swampy area with no trails is on the east side of Rochester Road. In addition to the cedar swamp, a magical wild kingdom for those that appreciate its wonder, the 76 acre preserve, one of the most biologically diverse sanctuaries in Oakland County, also has prairie fen, southern wet meadow habitat, and a small area of oak barrens.

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The sanctuary is open to the public without fees or vehicle permits. The trailhead and informational kiosk is located on the west side of Rochester Road. No facilities are present.  Stewardship and maintenance at the site is supported in part by REI Outfitters. For information on all Michigan Nature Association Sanctuaries, including six in Oakland County visit michigannature.org.

For more about the Oakland County Blog, find the latest county news and events, visit their website and use #OaklandCounty on their FacebookTwitterInstagram and LinkedIn pages.

Acquisition Expands Big Valley Nature Sanctuary

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern

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A view of Big Valley Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Owen Perkins

MNA acquired a 22-acre addition to Big Valley Nature Sanctuary in December 2013, expanding the already existing sanctuary to 157 acres. The addition further protects quality wetlands and habitat for rare species.

The addition will add more than four acres of quality wetland, six acres of upland, 12 acres of lake and more than 750 feet of shoreline to the Oakland County sanctuary. The new property includes southern wet meadow, degraded oak barrens and part of a lake. The addition has a savanna remnant which includes 10 to 20 savanna/prairie species.

Portions of the addition were partially cleared for development, but it retains many native species. The lake is home to rare species and the addition of the land to the Big Valley Nature Sanctuary will aid in the protection of the flora and fauna that call the sanctuary home.

Keep an eye on the MNA Calendar of Events for opportunities to explore the sanctuary or volunteer.

Let the Odyssey Begin!

By Tina Patterson and Dave Wendling

We can hardly wait until Sunday, April 15, for our first stop on the MNA 60th  Anniversary Odyssey tour of twenty special MNA sanctuaries. On Sunday, we will visit the largest MNA sanctuary in Southeast Michigan, the Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary, 245 acres of prime secluded nature.

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Timberland Swamp. Photo: Jeff Ganley

Join us on a two hour guided tour beginning at 10 a.m. and share the delight of spring ephemerals, birds, and all the wetland creatures that make Timberland home.  After the hike, stick around for a picnic (bring your own bag lunch) and socialize.  MNA will provide drinks and dessert to celebrate MNA’s 60th Birthday.

Don’t forget to wear hiking boots, preferably waterproof since Timberland can be wet.  We will be able to carpool to bathroom facilities at the nearby Indian Springs Metro Park.  Dogs are not permitted.

We’ll also be visiting Dauner Martin Nature Sanctuary, Rizor Memorial Nature Sanctuary, and Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary successively after our Timberland visit to complete our tour of the Southeast Michigan showcase sanctuaries.

Please call the MNA office at (866) 223-2231 to RSVP or click here.   If you can’t attend, you can follow our journey on this blog.